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Knowing where our food comes from is more important than ever. Foraging—gathering edible plants in the wild—is gaining ground. Read on for tips, suggestions, and a few warnings.
I never gave it much thought until writing this article, but I have been foraging for most of my life. In the Colorado mountains, I learned at an early age how to find puffball mushrooms as I tagged along behind my babysitter’s husband in the fragrant woods above Green Mountain Reservoir. My parents took us kids camping and taught us the joy of fresh-picked wild raspberries and strawberries. In Alaska, I dug razor clams on beaches in the Cook Inlet. At Gunpowder Falls State Park near my home in Maryland, I’ve found wild pawpaw trees with ripe fruit in September, picked wild wineberries in June, and blackberries in July. Even though I’ve had a few foraged foods over the years, I decided it was time to up my knowledge and share information about foraging gained from my research.
COVID Made Foraging More Popular
Gathering food from forests, plains, and tidal zones is an ancient human practice. Recently, foraging has gained interest. Some say thanks to COVID. The woods and outdoors were soothing during the first year of the pandemic. Foraging was a handy skill since some of us saw our grocery stores short of many food items we were used to having.
Before COVID quarantine restrictions eased up, forging workshops and events were selling out quickly. People of all ages took to the woods to learn this ancient skill of identifying and eating nature’s bounty. Foods like mushrooms, ramps, watercress, fiddleheads, berries, and more abound in the Mid-Atlantic region where I live. Let’s go on a trip to learn more about foraging and dining at restaurants that serve foraged foods.
Some general rules are in order for your safety. I’ve spoken with a few foragers during the research phase of this story and have some essential guidelines they’ve shared. One of the most important rules is, DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOU’RE NOT 100% CERTAIN IS SAFE.
Most Important Rule: DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOU’RE NOT 100% CERTAIN IS SAFE.
I suspect some of you are laughing at that rule, but depending on the plant, you might eat its look-alike and get sick. When I interviewed Nick Spero, he said, “It’s best to try small amounts of foraged foods until you are sure not only that it’s safe but that your digestive system can handle it.”
Other dangers are the usual suspects when out in the woods. Here on the East Coast, deer ticks are a serious health hazard due to Lyme Disease. Poison Ivy is also prevalent in many states. Several Western and Eastern states have venomous snakes to be aware of. You might encounter bears if you forage in the Northwest and Rocky Mountain states.
Where Can Your Forage
Another important rule has to do with property rights. Don’t forage where you don’t have permission to be hiking/foraging. In Maryland, the foragers I’ve spoken with have told me that state-run parks are an excellent place to visit. I recently went foraging with Chef Chris Amendola, and he said state parks are open to foraging. Patapsco State Park even held a garlic mustard foraging event to control the tasty weed that can take over the forest floor.
Don’t overharvest. This rule is significant with foraged roots such as ginseng, wild carrots, etc., where the plant is pulled out of the ground, thus killing it. Berries and fruit such as wild plums and pawpaw are less likely to suffer from overharvesting. With mushrooms, it’s best not to be greedy; please leave some of them behind.
The Chef Foragers
Chef Patrick Rodeheaver of Elkridge Furnace Inn is a certified forager of mushrooms from Mushroom Mountain and has had extensive experience on trips into the woods gathering mushrooms and other tasty plants. A total of 30 mushrooms are listed in Chef Patrick’s certification, showing he’s competent in finding safe and delicious mushrooms to share with diners.
At Elkridge Furnace Inn, Chef Patrick is the chef de cuisine and features foraged mushrooms, blackberries, wineberries, black walnuts, hickory nuts, nettles, and ramps when in season. Only a few chefs in the US are as skilled as Chef Patrick, but we have at least one other chef in Baltimore who is also a very experienced forager.
Foraged, A Hyper-Seasonal Restaurant
Chris Amendola is a very successful James Beard-nominated chef and an avid forager. His restaurant, named Foraged, lives up to its moniker. The first time I ate at Foraged, I went for the forest mushroom stew. That night, the stew featured 17 types of wild mushrooms and was one of the most delicious mushroom dishes ever. The roasted chicken leg with wild chanterelles was also delicious.
There’s a lot of important information needed to start foraging. Many books on foraging have lengthy disclaimers that the author and the publisher aren’t liable if you get sick or die from eating something hazardous to your health. I recommend attending a workshop or class with some classroom instruction and in-the-field foraging with an expert.
If you are inclined to teach yourself foraging, two books would greatly help. One of my favorite books is Edible Wild Plants by John Kalis, Ph.D. John’s book centers on a few common and delicious plants like wild spinach, and bitter greens such as dandelions, cat’s ear, sow thistle, and nipplewort. Edible Wild Plants also covers finding, safely selecting, and eating watercress, garlic mustard, and shepherd’s purse. I appreciate the author’s in-depth information on the plants’ growth phases, including the best parts of the plant to eat and which part of its growth phase renders it at its peak flavor.
I also like to check out books from my local library and am currently reading Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.
In the disclaimer section, the author lists some of the ridiculous disclaimers of some foraging books and notes there was a time when these books had no such warnings. I like that Mr. Thayer takes responsibility for the accuracy of his book but doesn’t take responsibility for the reader’s mistakes.
His book contains excellent photographs covering plants as diverse as prickly pear cactus, wine berries, nuts, and cow parsnip. Warnings, where needed, like for cow parsnip’s ability to cause severe skin burns, are noted. When I was stationed on Kodiak Island, AK, a crewmate found out how severe the burns can be when he walked through a patch of cow parsnip and had large, ugly blisters on his arms that looked like he’d been burned by hot grease. It took several weeks before his arms healed and looked normal again.
Learn From the Experts
In Maryland, there are a few places where newbie foragers can get quality instructions to get started. You can sign up for foraging workshops at Fox Haven Farm outside of Frederick, Maryland. One of the more interesting events they offer is foraging for plants so you can make your own gin. One of the guys from McClintock Distilling in Frederick leads this event. Another foraging event at Foxhaven Farm is specifically for mushrooms. Newbie foragers pay $45 and learn how to forage for mushrooms on the farm’s land from an expert.
I signed up for a foraging event at Fox Haven led by El McFarland, but the event wouldn’t occur before this article went live. I suspect I’ll learn a lot on this trip, as Fox Haven Farm is known for presenting quality workshops covering herbal remedies, forest bathing, open-hearth cooking, and beekeeping.
Nick Spero is a retired entomologist who loves being in the outdoors. I watched Nick’s very entertaining YouTube and NPR videos and saw he knows much about foraging. Thanks to one of his videos, Foraging For Wild Lunch, I learned that cattails are not only edible, they are delicious. Fox Haven Farm occasionally has foraging events with Nick or through the Natural History Society of Maryland.
Over on the Eastern Shore
Dr. Bill Schindler and his wife, Christina, operate their family restaurant, Modern Stone Age Kitchen, and their non-profit, The Eastern Shore Food Lab, in Chestertown, MD. Foraging is an important part of Dr. Schindler’s food world, and he offers a popular foraging event in Washington, DC, each spring.
Attendees get to forage through the streets, vacant lots, alleys, and on the US Capitol lawn to show how common some edible plants are in urban environments. You can find other foraging events of Dr. Schindler’s on EatLikeAHuman.com.
Where to Buy Foraged Mushrooms
Not many of us can take the time to learn how to forage for mushrooms safely. Some farmers markets I’ve been to, like the one in downtown Charlottesville, VA, occasionally sell fresh wild mushrooms. Several web-based businesses sell dried wild mushrooms. I bought dried morels from a mushroom company in Oregon in the 1990s but switched to Phillips Mushrooms in Kennett Square, PA, to purchase my dried wild mushrooms.
Phillips often has dried wild mushrooms that customers can order online. At Phillips retail shop, TheWoodlands, I buy dried wild morels by the ounce, $20, and porcini by the pound, $75, using them often. They regularly carry fresh lion’s mane, king oyster, shitake, Maitake, and oyster mushrooms grown on-site. By getting on their list for wild mushrooms, customers get notified by email when they have fresh wild porcini, morel, and chanterelle mushrooms.
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Although this article centers on foraging in Maryland, all fifty US states have an abundance of plants you can find. Please comment on which state you forage in and what you target. For those just starting their foraging education, I wish you happy hunting in the great outdoors. Let Wander With Wonder be your guide when planning your foraging escapade, outdoor adventures, and other outdoor activities.